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Mr Nicholls seemed a bit sad most of the evening. Tanzie wasn’t sure why. She wondered if it was because they’d reached the end of the little trip. But she heard the geese and ducks quacking and splashing on the far side of the lake, and then just the water lapping against the shore and it was really calm and peaceful and then she must have fallen asleep because she sort of remembered Mr Nicholls carrying her upstairs and Mum tucking her in and telling her she loved her, but what she mostly remembered about that whole evening was that nobody talked about the Olympiad and she was just really, really glad.

Because here’s the thing. While Mum was getting the barbecue set up Tanzie asked to borrow Mr Nicholls’s computer and looked up the statistics for children of low-income families at private schools. And she saw within a few minutes that the probability of her actually going to St Anne’s had always been in single-figure percentages. And she understood that it didn’t matter how well she had done in that entrance test, she should have checked this figure before they had even left home because you only ever went wrong in life when you didn’t pay attention to the numbers. Nicky came upstairs, and when he saw what she was doing he stood there without saying anything for a minute, then patted her arm and said he would speak to a couple of people he knew in the year below him at McArthur’s to make sure they looked out for her.

When they were at Linzie’s, Dad had told her that private school was no guarantee of success. He’d said it three times. ‘Success is all about what’s inside you,’ he’d said. ‘Determination.’ And then he said Tanzie should get Suze to show her how she did her hair because maybe hers would look nice like that too.

Mum said she would sleep on the sofa that night so that Tanzie and Nicky could have the second bedroom but Tanzie didn’t think she did because she woke up really thirsty in the middle of the night because of Mum’s cooking and she went downstairs and Mum wasn’t there. And in the morning Mum was wearing Mr Nicholls’s grey T-shirt that he wore every single day and Tanzie waited twenty minutes watching his door because she was curious to know what he was going to come down in.

A faint mist hung across the lake in the morning. It rose off the water like a magician’s trick as everyone packed up the car. Norman sniffed around the grass, his tail wagging slowly. ‘Rabbits,’ said Mr Nicholls (he was wearing another grey T-shirt). The morning was chill and grey and the wood pigeons cooed softly in the trees and Tanzie had that sad feeling like you’ve been somewhere really nice and it’s all come to an end.

‘I don’t want to go home,’ she said quietly, as Mum shut the boot.

She flinched. ‘What, love?’

‘I don’t want to go back home,’ Tanzie said.

Mum glanced at Mr Nicholls and then she tried to smile, walked over slowly and said, ‘Do you mean you want to be with your dad, Tanze? Because if that’s what you really want I’ll –’

‘No. I just like this house and it’s nice here.’ She wanted to say, ‘And there’s nothing to look forward to when we get back because everything is spoiled and, besides, here there are no Fishers,’ but she could see from Mum’s face that that was what she was thinking too, because she immediately looked at Nicky and he shrugged.

‘You know, there’s no shame in having tried to do something, right?’ Mum gazed at them both. ‘We all did our best to make something happen, and it didn’t happen, but some good things have come out of it. We got to see some parts of the country we would never have seen. We learnt a few things. We sorted it out with your dad. We made some friends.’ It’s possible she meant Linzie and her children but her eyes were on Mr Nicholls when she said it. ‘So all in all I think it was a good thing that we tried, even if it didn’t go quite the way we’d planned. And, you know, maybe things won’t be so bad once we get home.’

Nicky’s face didn’t show anything. Tanzie knew he was thinking about all the money.

And then Mr Nicholls, who had said barely anything all morning, walked around the car, opened the door for her and said, ‘Yes. Well. I’ve been thinking about that. And we’re going to make a little detour.’

27.

Jess

They were a muted little group in the car on the way home. Nobody asked to play music, and there was little conversation. Even the dog no longer whined, as if he had accepted that this car was now his home. The whole time Jess had planned the trip, through the strange, frenetic few days of travelling, she had imagined no further than getting Tanzie to the Olympiad. She would get her there, she would sit the test, and everything would be okay. She hadn’t given a thought to the possibility that the entire trip might take three days longer than she had planned or that she would blow the budget in the process. She’d never once considered that they might need to stay somewhere on the way home. Or that she would be left with precisely £13.81 in cash to her name and a bank card that she was too frightened to feed into a cashpoint in case it didn’t come back.

Jess mentioned none of this to Ed. He was silent, his gaze trained on the road ahead, perhaps lost in thoughts of his father. Nicky, behind him, tapped away on Ed’s laptop, ear-buds wedged into his ears, his brow furrowed with concentration. Jess suspected there was some weird gadget of Ed’s that allowed him access to the Internet. She was so grateful that he was talking and eating and sleeping that she didn’t query it. Tanzie was silent, her hand resting on Norman’s great head, her eyes fixed on the speeding landscape through the window. Whenever Jess asked her if she was okay, she would simply nod.

None of it seemed to matter as much as it should. Because something fundamental had shifted in her.

Ed. Jess repeated his name silently in her head until it ceased to have any real meaning. She sat inches from this man, who, she now understood, was quite simply the greatest man she had ever known. She was only surprised that nobody else seemed to have realized it. When he smiled, Jess couldn’t help smiling. When his face stilled in sadness, something inside her broke a little. She watched him with her children, the easy way in which he showed Nicky some feature on his computer, the serious manner in which he considered some passing comment of Tanzie’s – the kind of comment that would have caused Marty to roll his eyes to Heaven – and she wished he had been in their lives long ago. When they were alone and he held her close to him, his palm resting with a hint of possession on Jess’s thigh, his breath soft in her ear, she felt with a quiet certainty that it would all be okay. It wasn’t that Ed would make it okay – he had his own problems to deal with – but that somehow the sum of them added up to something better. They would make it okay. He was the first person Jess had ever met with whom she understood the saying: They were just really good together.

She was afraid to ask him what any of this meant. She was afraid that she had rattled on for so long about how she didn’t need anyone, how she was quite self-sufficient, thank you, and how, what with her work and the two kids and the dog, there was no room for anyone else in her life, that he might have taken her seriously.

Because she wanted Ed Nicholls. She wanted to wake up with him, to drink with him, to feed him toast from sticky fingers. She wanted to wrap her legs around him in the dark and feel him inside her, to buck against him as he held her. She wanted the sweat and the pull and the solidity of him, his mouth on hers, his eyes on hers. They drove and she recalled the previous two nights in hot, dreamy fragments, his hands, his mouth, the way he had to stifle her as she came so that they wouldn’t wake the children, and it was all she could do not to reach across and bury her face in his neck, to slide her hands up the back of his T-shirt for the sheer pleasure of feeling his skin against hers.

She had spent so long thinking only about the children, about work and bills and money. Now her head was full of him. When he turned to her she blushed. When he said her name she heard it as a murmur, spoken in the dark. When he handed her a coffee the brief touch of his fingers sent an electric pulse fizzing through her. She liked it when she felt his eyes settle on her, something distant in his gaze, and she wondered what he was thinking.

Jess had no idea how to communicate any of this to him. She had been so young when she met Marty, and apart from one night in the Feathers with Liam Stubbs’s hands up her shirt, she had never had even the beginnings of a relationship with anyone else since.

Jess Thomas had not been on an actual date since school. It made her sound ridiculous, even to herself. She just wanted to show him.

She ached with it.

‘We’ll keep going to Nottingham, if you guys are all okay,’ he said, turning to look at her. He still had the faintest bruise on the side of his nose. ‘We’ll pitch up somewhere late. That way we’ll make it home in one run on Thursday.’

And then what? Jess wanted to ask. But she put her feet up on the dashboard, and said, ‘Sounds good.’

They stopped for lunch at a service station. The children had given up asking if there was any chance they could eat anything but sandwiches, and now eyed the fast-food joints and upmarket coffee shops with something close to indifference. They unfolded themselves, and paused to stretch.

‘How about sausage rolls?’ said Ed, pointing towards a concession. ‘Coffee and hot sausage rolls. Or Cornish pasties. My treat. Come on.’

Jess looked at him.

‘I need some trash food. Some calorific greasy junk. Who wants some greasy carbohydrate, kids?’ He motioned to Jess. ‘Come on, you food Nazi. We’ll eat some fruit afterwards.’

‘You’re not afraid? After that kebab?’

His hand was above his brow, shielding his eyes from the sun so that he could see her better. ‘I’ve decided I like living dangerously.’

He had come to her the previous night, after Nicky, who had been tapping silently away at Ed’s laptop in the corner of the room, had finally gone to bed. She had felt like a teenager sitting there on the other sofa to him, pretending to watch the television, waiting for everyone else to go to bed just so she could touch him. But when Nicky finally sloped off, Ed had opened up the laptop rather than move straight to her.

‘What’s he doing?’ she had said, as Ed peered at the screen.

‘Creative writing,’ he said.

‘Not gaming? No guns? No explosions?’

‘Nothing.’

‘He sleeps,’ she had whispered. ‘He has slept every night we’ve been away. Without a spliff.’

‘Good for him. I feel like I haven’t slept for several years.’

He seemed to have aged a decade in the short time they had been away. Jess wondered if she should apologize, if spending too much time with her chaotic little family would do that to any man. She remembered what Chelsea had said about her chances of having any kind of love life. And then, as she sat, suddenly unsure what to do next, he had reached out a hand to her and pulled her into him. ‘So,’ he had said softly, ‘Jessica Rae Thomas. Are you going to let me get some sleep tonight?’

She studied his lower lip, absorbing the feel of his hand on her hip. Feeling suddenly joyous. ‘No,’ she said.

‘Excellent answer.’

She thought they might have had three hours. It was hard to tell.

Now they changed direction, walking away from the mini-mart, weaving their way through clumps of disgruntled travellers looking for cashpoint machines or overcrowded toilets. Jess tried not to look as delighted as she felt at the thought of not making another round of sandwiches. She could smell the buttery pastry of the hot pies from yards away.

The children, clutching a handful of notes and Ed’s instructions, disappeared into the long queue inside the shop. He walked towards her, so that they were shielded from them by the crowds of people.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Just looking.’ Every time he stood close to her Jess felt like she was a few degrees warmer than she should have been.

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